In Alabama, 50 years after Selma, voting rights are once more under assault. Even as Alabama finally took down its Confederate flags this year, it has raised new obstacles to voting. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act, supported by the five conservative justices alone, opened the floodgates to legislation in over 21 states erecting new obstacles to make voting more difficult. These have included limiting the days for early voting, eliminating Sunday voting, requiring various forms of ID, shutting down voting sites and more.
Alabama – the home of Selma and the Bloody Sunday police riot that spurred the passage of the original Voting Rights Act 50 years ago – is one of the leaders in the new forms of voter suppression. Alabama passed a bill requiring for the first time a photo ID for voting, hitting African-Americans, the poor, the young and the old disproportionately. Now Alabama is using a budget squeeze to shut down 31 satellite offices that issue driver’s licenses, the most popular form of voter ID. This new Jim Crow isn’t subtle.
Al.com columnist John Archibald reported that eight of the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentage of nonwhite registered voters saw their driver’s license offices closed. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” Archibald wrote. “Every one.” First the state demands that you get a photo ID, and then it makes it harder to do so, particularly in areas heavily populated by African-Americans.
Not surprisingly, civil rights activists are asking the Justice Department to intervene. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, who represents Selma and is the only Democratic member of the Alabama congressional delegation, called the restrictions “eerily reminiscent of past, discriminatory practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests that restricted the black vote.” State officials claim that other ways of obtaining photo IDs are available for voters. But this is Alabama, infamous for its segregationist history, for its rejectionist Gov. George Wallace, for Bloody Sunday in Selma, for the murder of four little girls in the bombing of the Birmingham church.
Under the original Voting Rights Act, Alabama’s measures would have required pre-clearance from the Justice Department. With the bipartisan leadership of Rep. John Conyers, Sen. Pat Leahy, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a bill to resuscitate the Voting Rights Act is now pending in Congress, although it has yet to get a vote. It revives pre-clearance measures, applying them to states with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past 15 years. While the old law applied to nine Southern states and parts of several others, this standard would apply only to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Yes, Alabama would still be exempt from pre-clearance, as would other states with an extensive history of voting discrimination such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Virginia.
The right to vote is fundamental to any republic. Voting should be facilitated, not obstructed. We should register citizens automatically. Early voting should be extended and easy. Voting day should be a holiday, so workers have time to cast their votes. American voting rates are scandalously low, largely because we make registration and voting so difficult.
It is particularly outrageous that 50 years after Selma, when the country celebrates the courage of the civil rights marchers, we still witness efforts to suppress the vote, skewed to discriminate against minorities. Alabama’s actions demand a Justice Department investigation. And that demand should be met immediately.
Appeared originally in the Chicago Sun-Times, October 6, 2015, and reposted by permission.
Photo: “We March With Selma cph.3c35695” Stanley Wolfson, New York World Telegram & Sun, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.